Among three influences contributing to Agincourt’s condition, to its physical form — Forces, Factors & Faces — I have no particular favorite.
FORCES are those influences over which we have no control: witness the volcanic activity at Pāhoa, in Hawai’i, above. Under normal conditions (whatever those may be; I’m unfamiliar with such), weather and geology would be the principal forces at work—the clouds above us; the rocks beneath—but sometimes they can get out of control, and that’s because they are beyond our control—not for lack of trying. Apparently, through plate tectonics, those rocks can become molten and erupt randomly, without notice, and with considerable disruptive, even destructive, effect. I’m happy to report such phenomena are unfamiliar in Iowa. Our disruptions are more likely to have been caused by tornado, flood, or fire. Mesopotamia, for example, will have been more adversely affected by flood, low-lying and between two water courses, than other parts of town. And if the southwest quadrant is Mesopotamia, then the northeast is the Acropolis.
Disease is a more egalitarian Force, ignorant of class distinctions. Tuberculosis, for example, decimated rich and poor alike. When Elizabeth McCormick, grandchild of the founder of International Harvester, died of “the wasting disease”, her family crusaded for its elimination. The Influenza Pandemic—Spanish Flu—of 1918 claimed 20 to 40 million people world-wide, nearly 700,000 in the U.S. Each of these public health phenomena touched communities of every size and rank. And some of them resulted in programs which fall in the second category: Factors.
FACTORS encompass large-scale human phenomena, the actions of government or institutions which affect large numbers of people, whole classes, even entire populations. The Civil War robbed the nation of its innocence and its youth, as did the Great War, the war to end war. But some other factors have been more positive in outlook, even if they struck a prohibitive position, like the Eighteenth Amendment and the elimination of alcohol. The Hill-Burton Act of 1946 strove to erect hospitals across the nation, while others have underwritten law enforcement centers, community colleges, or public libraries.
Now and then a single person might be classified as a Factor, like Andrew Carnegie, whose benefaction built 2500 libraries between 1883 and 1929, most of them in the “wholesale” phase toward the end of that period. So, Carnegie might be classified as a FACE.
FACES are the individuals whose efforts have altered the course of our history, globally, nationally, or at the local level. Carnegie is certainly one of that group, but so are Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr Jonas Salk, President John F. Kennedy. This is a category where people can have been effective at the community scale: politicians (like Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn or its Social Gospel Methodist minister B.D.E. Barnes or one of its captains of industry Benjamin Tabor. Either singly or in combination, it is easier to understand the background or underpinnings of the community’s physical form in positive (and, I suppose, negative) ways. Perhaps its time for me to review the Who’s Who, the case of characters identified in the story thus far for the various ways each has shaped what Agincourt looks like today.
Do you think I need to consider a fourth set of influence: FECES.
Anyone over sixty-five might remember The Saturday Review of Literature, the magazine’s longer name while I was in high school. Why I subscribed is a mystery; but it looked good in the mass of stuff I carried around much of the time. One of the highlights was a regular cartoon by Burr Shafer titled “Through History with J. Wesley Smith.” If you need a testimonial, consider President Harry Truman’s compliment addressed to Shafer: “I’m very proud that I’m smart enough to get the point.”
The eponymous J. Wesley Smith ricocheted from Egypt through the Enlightenment, making offhand observations along the way that history would ultimately prove to have been accurate. One toga-clad Roman overseer, for example, turns to another in the construction shack, grumbling, “Romulus must be crazy. He expects us to get all this done today.” Or a ruffled, misshapen swan, watching its elegant counterpart glide across the pond, grouses, “I, on the other hand, have a beautiful mind.”
In one of my favorites, a thoughtful dinosaur observes to another a change in the weather: “I don’t know about you, but this cold snap has me worried.” I’ll admit the average dinosaur had a brain the size of a tangerine, so any speculation about awareness of their doom is silly. But is it possible architects are equally oblivious to the passing of an architectural trend or even an entire movement?
Asbury UMC: The Last Dinosaur
In 1919, during the final months of the Great War, the vestry of Asbury Methodist Episcopal church recognized the limitations on programming imposed by an outgrown building. Reverend B. D. E. Barnes—known to his friends as “The Venerable Bede”—had become pastor a few years earlier, afire with the Social Gospel and frustrated in his attempts to expand church programs for its members and the community at large. The cramped 1880s Gothic Revival sanctuary required three Sunday services (at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00), daycare had taken over the rectory’s living and dining rooms, and Sunday school held classes in a space without toilets. Pastor Barnes had convinced his governing board (well supplied with successful merchants) that the time had come to build. So an announcement appeared in the Improvement Bulletin inviting architects to schedule interviews and hawk their wares.
It was common practice for clients to seek architectural services this way: 1) assess parish needs and estimate available resources; 2) schedule two or three evenings for interviews; and 3) schedule interested architects for 30-minute time slots. Architects from as far afield as Omaha, Sioux City, and Des Moines might have evidenced regional interest, but others like W. C. Jones of Chicago were already doing work in the state (at Cedar Rapids) and would have found little difficulty working at a distance from their home base. Though Jones specialized in church design—with several “Social Gospel” designs to their credit—it was Des Moines architects Liebbe Nourse & Rasmussen¹ who prevailed. [Frankly, I was surprised, since Jones, alone or with his former partner Gilbert Turnbull, had already designed precisely the sort of Akron-Auditorium building which would have satisfied Rev Barnes’s Christian Socialist vision. Could Jones have been presumptive; too sure of himself?]
Architect and client would normally have thrashed out the program elements—what was possible within the budget, the ideal versus the real—and developed two or three preliminary schemes for discussion, at which point proposals might be accepted, rejected, or combined and developed further. It’s that sort of historical information which frequently disappears into the waste basket, so we may never know how the final design was achieved and approved.
Then there is the question of the dinosaur. I’ve done a good deal of research on the so-called Akron-Auditorium Plan and developed a database of more than four thousand possible examples—really—and I can say with some assurance that A-A churches were built well into the mid-1920s, but that Agincourt’s example may be among the last and the largest—a dinosaur in a new ecclesiastical age.
¹ Henry F. Liebbe [1872-1951], Clinton C. Nourse [1863-1950], and Edward F. Rasmussen [1867/8-1930]. Liebbe’s son Henry J. was also a draughtsman in the firm. Rasmussen, however, is an especially interesting character. He was born and raised in Owatonna, Minnesota, where he would have known Sullivan’s National Farmers Bank; draughted in the Saint Paul office of J. Walter Stevens; then relocated to Sioux City, home of the Woodbury County Courthouse, the largest public building designed in the Prairie Style.
The World of Work
The decennial U.S. Census has been an important source for information on many topics. Though the format of each census changes, 19th century versions are useful for understanding ethnicity, marital status, birth rates, occupation, home ownership, etc. What you may not know is that the census for 1890 — potentially one of the most important for an especially volatile period in U.S. history, documenting the end of “the frontier” — burned in 1921 before it could be opened for public access. Anyone doing on-line genealogical work was hampered by that gaping hole in resources.
Realizing that city directories could be a useful tool, a massive effort was put into scanning them in OCR format and posting them on pay sites like ancestry.com. Beginning with major urban areas, like Chicago, for example, and extending outward from 1890, the process continues and has included smaller and smaller communities, even to the potential scale of a place like Agincourt. So it’s easy to imagine the 1915 volume of “Needle & Haystack’s Directory”. And how significant it could be in telling the story.
It may surprise that directories like this existed long before there were telephones; their purpose was quite different. Directories were vital tools for finding people in cities of all sizes, and included both alphabetical and classified sections. Advertising space was sold to underwrite their cost and make each annual volume (not every town has one for every year) affordable for most residents. I’ve found them particularly helpful in documenting the presence of building professionals, architects, masons, carpenters, etc. The title page and accompanying map for the N&H 1915 directory may become part of the proposed Agincourt book currently underway.
Among the things I find most useful is the classified listing. Not only does it identify businesses and professions — butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and the like — but it also enables us to calculate how many of those are likely on a per capita basis. How many residents, for example, are required to support an architect? — given that the profession was unregulated and virtually anyone could use the title. How large a community is necessary to justify a public library? A blacksmith? A department store? You get the idea. So it is with great interest when images like this appear at auction sites.
I wasn’t able to acquire this photo (it’s not a postcard) but I can tell you it is unidentified by name, location, or date, though we can make an educated guess. Certainly a town of very modest size warranted boot and shoe repair, especially repair. But there is additional information that can be gleaned from it: minimum signage [see the ice cream?], brick sidewalks, shop floors of varying levels, hybrid construction (cast iron and masonry), ceilings of 12-14 feet in height. And then there is that young man on the right. A budding cobbler waiting to take over the family business?
Hradek’s Shoe Repair had already become part of the narrative before this image came along, a shop on South Broad Street on the “wrong” side of town. Perhaps this is it.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
WALKER, Hirst (1868—1957)
Tower Bridge, London
watercolor on paper / 3 inches by 6 inches
Watercolorist Hirst Walker was born in Malton, in the English north country. He lived and worked in Scarborough and Whitby where he became associated with the Staithes Group of Impressionist plein air artists who painted in the North Yorkshire coastal town at the turn of the century. A miniature watercolor was commissioned in 1923 by the Royal Household for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, possibly about the time of this small work.
The iconic Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894, is also represented by another work in the Community Collection.
|synonyms:||clarification, simplification; More
description, report, statement;
elucidation, exposition, expounding, explication;
gloss, interpretation, commentary, exegesis
“an explanation of the ideas contained in the essay”
|synonyms:||account, reason; More
justification, excuse, alibi, defense, vindication, story, answers
“I owe you an explanation”
In my experience the best way to understand something, anything, is to explain it to someone else, because:
- their very willingness to listen presumes a degree of interest you shouldn’t ignore;
- the structure of your telling will vary and is likely to: 1) improve with each iteration, or 2) become formulaic, uninteresting, and/or unresponsive;
- you must understand the difference between ignorance and stupid: the former is simply uninformed, the latter uninformable [There is also a distinction to be made between dumb and stupid, but that’s a topic for another forum];
- it will—if you’ll just listen to yourselves—enhance your own understanding of the topic and improve whatever it is you’re trying to describe—in other words, it offers feedback; but
- it can also border on justification, which may be offensive to your listeners and unsettling to you, since you had once seemed so committed and have now sown the seeds of your own doubt and undermined the curiosity you inferred from their query.
I had coffee recently with four freshmen, applying for admission to our program, who may have got more than a tasty beverage for their time. I surely did, because it afforded an opportunity to hone my telling of Agincourt. [Is it even possible to have a conversation not involving Agincourt? Probably not.]
Design and Narrative
Once again, Douglas Adams rescues me from the forest of my own narcissism—or is it swamp? When I’m able to stand outside myself—which, if you weren’t aware, is not possible for a narcissist—I begin to understand the notion of wholisticism. Is that even a word? Anyway, it seems Dirk Gently’s wholistic approach to the solution of crime has become my model. I wrote all this without recalling its likely source: Dirk Gently’s Wholistic Detective Agency:
“What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true?”
― Douglas Adams,
Adams is clearly a better writer than I shall ever be. But aside from that uncomfortable truth, he has much more to offer on the notion of the interrelatedness of all things. So this quote is more to the point:
“I’m very glad you asked me that, Mrs Rawlinson. The term `holistic’ refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I do not concern myself with such petty things as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces of pocket fluff and inane footprints. I see the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose, Mrs Rawlinson.”
“Let me give you an example. If you go to an acupuncturist with toothache he sticks a needle instead into your thigh. Do you know why he does that, Mrs Rawlinson?
“No, neither do I, Mrs Rawlinson, but we intend to find out. A pleasure talking to you, Mrs Rawlinson. Goodbye.”
And so it was I found myself deep in the nexus of Agincourt’s core story. With each telling, I also detect the deepening web of relationships, both human and material, in this factional community.
See: Introduction 1.1
Our friend and former department chair Cecil Elliott had a way of cutting through the academic argle-bargle (i.e., obfuscatory crap), laying bare the essence of any issue at hand. That’s one of the qualities some of us most admired in him and, simultaneously, dreaded that any one of us might be its target; if so, it wouldn’t have been without cause. I can’t recall the first time I heard Cecil make this observation — varying the monotony — but I suspect it may have been an occasion not unlike my experience yesterday during the round of second-year reviews in ARCH272.
The students had been asked to design mid-sized mixed-use buildings on one of four Moorhead-Fargo inner-city sites; to create “neighborhoods” that outsiders might also enjoy visiting. These were team projects in which each student was assigned a site probably no larger than a half city block; of including (at least) housing and some commercial activity; and of coördinating their proposals within the team. In my comments, I observed (though they may already have made those observations among themselves) there are several comparable projects in the community which could have informed their own designs:
- Downtown Moorhead at Main Avenue and Fourth Street, an Urban Renewal area with a similar scale and program;
- A parking lot (I was about to say “vacant” but that’s not quite accurate; vacant and empty aren’t interchangeable) east of Renaissance Hall along N.P. Avenue in Fargo;
- The Roberts Street Commons project nearing completion at Roberts Street and Second Avenue, Fargo, again with a similar mix of apartments and retail;
- 220 West, an apartment building at North Tenth Street and Third Avenue (which includes no commercial space); and
- 300 Lime, occupying a half block at Eleventh Street North and Fourth Avenue (which also includes no commercial space).
These five projects span a fifteen-year period and are similar in bulk and footprint, even if they differ in program elements. And they offer important lessons to those second-year students I met Friday morning.
Nineteenth-century American cities played by a different set of rules than they have, say, since 1950, when government-sponsored Urban Renewal changed the character of our center cities and practically obliterated any rules which had shaped them prior to the Second World War. And while I use the word “rules”, there was no handbook furtively passed among owners, architects, and builders who created the colorful block fronts represented by this panoramic view of Broadway in downtown Fargo, taken about 1910. The “rules” were a kind of default, a broadly held pattern accepted by all concerned. If only we did have such a handbook.
A typical urban block front circa 1900, whether in Keokuk or Kalispell, was divided into 25-foot-wide building sites, usually set within the Jeffersonian grid of our westward Manifest Destiny. If they deviate, it is usually a reaction to topography, water courses, railway rights-of-way, or some other natural or human factor. Within this commercial cartesian grid, speculators responded to market forces (or attempted to capitalize and redirect those forces toward their own ends) with generally two- and three-story commercial fronts of brick and cast iron, accented with moderate amounts of wood and stone — depending on the community’s prior experience with fire.
Architects or builders — in the 19th century there was little practical difference between them — satisfied the client’s desire for solutions which balanced stylistic expression with reasonable economy. Brick — uniform or multi-colored; smooth and textured; corbelled and coursed; laid in running bond, soldier courses, headers and stretchers, basket-weave and herringbone — accented with stone and/or terra cotta, and spanned with cast or wrought iron were the predominant material palette. Personal flourishes included at the very least personal or business names, dates, initials, personal, fraternal, or corporate symbols, and other ornamental touches. Floor heights varied within reasonable limits; the ceiling heights for a shallow 25-foot-wide store might differ from a deep 50-foot width, and were often guided by the length of a flight of stairs patrons would tolerate. The elements might vary, but the template remained fairly consistent, so it’s no wonder our Midwestern cities appear to have been variations upon a theme.
Now, safely beyond the bulldozer mentality of Urban Renewal, and well within the historic preservation mindset encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Historic District ordinances often provide guidelines for the insertion of new buildings in historic fabric, hoping to achieve some degree of compatibility. There is where we are likely to find those rules — long after the fact and perhaps only a ouija-board-induced approximation of those 19th century “rules” we’d like to believe had been in effect at the time our great-grandparents walked those streets. Such guidelines, whether government- or self-imposed, might have shaped as readily a Main Street store front or the regeneration of a place as iconic as Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and always with mixed results.
In Cecil Elliott’s terms, they had learned how to vary the monotony.
It’s highly likely I’ll have something else to offer on this topic, so be forewarned.
noun; plural, thē⋅sēs (thee-sees)
- Hegelian dialectic.
Our end-of-the-academic-year festivities are complete — tests graded (except mine, of course); projects reviewed; awards presented — and with them, a sure sign of summer.
During the last four days each of us (faculty) served as outside or “blind” reviewers (because, in theory, most of us have had no direct connection with the thesis process). In my case, there were three projects assigned to me, but we often sit in on others, hoping to be informed or out of a perverse curiosity; I did some of both. And during the week there is also a good deal of water cooler conversation, in hushed tone among two or three of us, about the general level of their quality this year and inevitable comparisons with previous classes.
This year my review of fifth-year students was complemented by an invitation to do the same with a section of second-year design (ARCH272) projects. And that review has raised two observations I’ll make here (or somewhere else, but this forum is handy): #1) I saw second-year work whose trajectory, if unimpeded during the next three years, will result in an epic crop of theses for the Class of 2021; and #2) a sense of wonder about the thesis process itself, and concern whether I could accomplish anything comparable to our new graduates. Consider the first of these as having been officially asked and answered: I saw remarkable work in at least one section of ARCH272 — fifteen students — concluding their first year of design work, and look forward with relish to their accomplishments next year and beyond. My second observation requires a few more words.
The thesis is a two-semester process which actually begins at the end of fourth-year with thoughtful consideration of the project topic. A lengthy manual or guide has evolved over many years to help students focus on a topic that is: a) appropriately architectural; b) suitably complex; c) sufficiently worthy of a year-long investigation; and d) encompasses a philosophical issue larger than the project itself, i.e., the project type is a vehicle. So, a single-family lake cabin for Aunt Harriet won’t cut the mustard.
Frankly, I admit there are projects hanging on our fifth floor that make little sense to me, but that’s different matter for another time. Instead, I’ve begun to wonder what my own thesis would be in such a framework: What topic would I propose now for that year-long exploration of a significant architectural issue? During a pit-stop at a colleague’s office late this afternoon, I suddenly had an answer — but you’re not going to like it. A copy of the actual Thesis Manual isn’t at hand, so the following is (subject to modification) a preliminary statement and what I might consider an argument for its acceptance.
THESIS: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours
TITLE: A Carnegie Era Public Library in the Style of Architect Louis Sullivan
BUILDING TYPE: A public library typical of those underwritten by the philanthropy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie during the period 1909-1919
SITE: A Midwestern community of a size approximate to those receiving a median Carnegie grant
PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION(S) (and certain propositions to be tested):
1) What is the relationship between a specific building type (in this case, a public library) and the socio-economic matrix of its time and place?
- Throughout history, but especially during the years between the Civil and First World wars, architects have innovated, as leaders in cultural progress. The Protestant church building in the United States is evidence of that phenomenon in the later 19th century [I might just as reasonably propose the design of an Akron-Auditorium church]; the public library exemplifies the early 20th.
2) What role has the public library played in the cultural life of the United States? Especially, how can the infusion of massive philanthropy influence, even redirect, the genesis and evolution of a particular building type?
- Cultural institutions, government programs, and private philanthropy have been and are likely to remain agents of architectural change.
3) What is the relationship between imaginative design and the materials available for their execution (presuming this is a dynamic relationship)?
- Generally, the relationship between the architect and the material manufacturer-supplier has reversed from its status early in the 20th century. A century ago, manufacturers were capable of accommodating specific design requirements—such as ornamental cast iron and terra cotta. That relationship circa 1910-1920 was essential to Sullivan’s aesthetic.
4) Is it possible to identify the actual process of architectural design? How has it evolved, say, during the last century; is it also possible to simulate a particular architect’s process? Specifically, given that the American public library became almost formulaic during the first quarter of the 20th century, how might a renowned architect like Louis Sullivan — who designed just one library long before the era of Carnegie funding — have approached an unfamiliar building type late in his career?
- A massive academic study of architectural creativity was conducted in 1958-1959 by the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley. In a Freudian sense, it may be possible to retroactively apply those methods to architects no longer living — Michelangelo, for example, or Frank Lloyd Wright — and attempt to understand their creative processes posthumously. Louis Sullivan is the case study I propose.
Yes, this may not be in the current NDSU ALA Thesis Manual format; just a guess on my part how I might propose the founding question of the Agincourt Project as a thesis topic. And despite criticism from some quarters (that the project has marginal legitimacy), I’d be proud to place this proposition in the evaluation-approval process. Would it be approved?
And then, of course, there’s the unspoken question: Would I be able to do it?
PS: I was tempted to create a tongue-twister, like “seize these theses” or “these theses seethe” but resisted. Sometimes it’s best to leave bad enough alone.